Recently I’ve heard a lot of people use the word “authentic” about burners and the Burning Man community. We are an extremely authentic people doing an extremely authentic thing.
I’m not so sure. Burning Man has a profound psychological, even spiritual, impact on people – but are we really more authentic than anybody else?
I’d be a lot more convinced if so many people at Burning Man didn’t dress so much alike: as if strapping on a leather harness and glow sticks because it makes you fit in at the sound camp really makes you more authentic than someone who dresses in a gray flannel suit for his job at the accounting firm.
I’d be a lot more convinced if all the music wasn’t so similar – surely all our inner selves can’t be DJs?
I’d be more convinced by claims to authenticity if more people’s “authentic” selves didn’t fit so neatly with ideals that other people thought up. Nobody gets authenticity points for following the 10 commandments: why should they get them for following the 10 principles?
While there’s certainly a lot of iconoclasm and personal eccentricity at Burning Man … there’s also a hell of a lot of conformity. Given the chance to go out in the desert and do anything, it’s obvious that many of us decide to imitate each other. But the rhetoric of authenticity persists. What causes so many of us to feel authentic while we’re keeping up with the Sparkles?
I’d say there are three reasons:
- Burning Man is an ecstatic experience, and ecstatic experiences always feel authentic no matter what you actually do;
- The issues Burning Man brings up in people are deeply personal and, in that sense, “authentic,” even if people choose to address them in an inauthentic way;
- That however much Burners may conform, Burning Man as a culture values eccentricity enough that people who genuinely choose to do something unique and different are given far more support than they are in the default world.
Still with me? Then let’s start from the beginning. Nevermind what the Sparkles are doing … yes, I know, their sound camp has a flamethrower. But, trust me, you’ll see that again.
Ecstatic rituals have been a basic part of most cultures. They get us out of our skin, take us away from our lives, ground us in the moment, connect us to the divine – and modern culture doesn’t have any. Especially multi-tasking screen jockeys. There is, perhaps, a need … every bit as authentic as hunger and thirst … to experience the ecstatic and be focused in the moment. For some people Burning Man fills that need – and hallelujah.
Any ecstatic experience will feel authentic in the moment, precisely because you are in the moment. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that people are at their most honest when they orgasm. This is true, but it’s also trivial. Dancing all night doesn’t mean your true self is a dancer any more than running for your life makes you a runner or getting sunburned makes you a piece of toast. Ecstatic experiences may be as important to us as eating and drinking, but simply meeting those needs doesn’t make you an authentic person in any meaningful sense.
It can’t, because the whole point of having an ecstatic experience is that it gets us out of our “selves,” taking our identity away and merging us with something larger. Ecstatic experiences are *transpersonal* – and while they may be essential to life, they also have very little to say about who we are as individuals.
Besides, ecstatic experiences are also just one part of Burning Man … and often just a small part. Equally crucial to the sense of “authenticity” that so many associate with Burning Man is the fact that Burning Man has an extraordinary psychological acuity. For oh so many of us, going to Burning Man is like sitting on Freud’s couch with a geisha. The intensity, the sexuality, the art, the closeness to this natural yet alien landscape … these ingredients are a potent alchemy. Whatever your issues are, Burning Man brings them up.
This is an authentically personal psychological process. I mean, if it isn’t nothing is. They’re your issues, made manifest. Confronting them will always feel authentic.
But much in the same way that watching An Inconvenient Truth doesn’t necessarily make you an environmentalist, going to Burning Man and being confronted with your issues doesn’t necessarily make you any more authentic. It only creates the possibility of authenticity.
And this is the key factor: more than anything else, Burning Man creates possibility. Anything can happen – and you’re part of that.
If anything can happen, of course, you can become in touch with your authentic self … but you can also leave it behind. In an atmosphere of near infinite possibility, you can try on new selves the way people build new theme camps. Then leave at the end of the week.
And why wouldn’t you?
Because in the “default world” such possibility is even harder to come by than authenticity. It’s rare. You have a life to live: deviation has serious consequences. You don’t have time to confront your issues head on (many of us wouldn’t know how anyway), and you don’t have the freedom to experiment with answers. And then you come to Burning Man, and suddenly everything’s on the table.
Everything. Authenticity is just the appetizer.
In that sense, Burning Man is as inauthentic a community – in the best possible sense – as you’ll find anywhere. Our experiences of authenticity are overwhelmed by the experience of possibility. The desert is an open space. Authenticity co-exists with illusion, play, and false faces.
What’s authentic at Burning Man is what you’re confronted with, not necessarily what you do with it.
What we are is incredibly supportive to what our various fellows choose to do with that freedom. While there is an obnoxious strain of “more burner than thou” that persists on the playa, in most cases most people are not only tolerant of the choices other burners make, they’d like to help.
Whatever direction you’re going, people at Burning Man would like to give you a push. Want to dance all night and sleep all day with complete strangers? Right on! Here are some vitamins. Want to dedicate yourself to helping a performance artist distribute chocolate to people in animal costumes? What a great cause – feel free to crash in my van. Want to erect a 50 foot phallus entirely out of duct tape? Hey, listen, if you need more duct tape …
This can lead to some incredibly stupid life choices made to the cheers of a topless Greek chorus, but you can’t say we weren’t there with you. Burners celebrate most of the choices people make, the more eccentric and creative the better.
But what we’re celebrating is eccentricity and creativity. While we support authenticity in principle, in practice we don’t really care if the things people do on the playa are authentic expressions of their inner selves: we just like it that they’re being creative eccentrics. I’ve honstely never thought: “Yes, his art car is a panoply of festive lights and fine alcohol, but is this appropriately representative of the way he lives at home?”
I bet you haven’t either.
Burning Man is a space where great authenticity can happen, because anything can happen. It’s set up to encourage you to embrace possibility, but remains agnostic on the issue of authenticity. Be who you want to be, even if it isn’t true: someone will support you.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com